The Spiritual Practice of Poetry

Published: February 11, 2016

In the past week, I baptized two babies—one dead, one dying. I held a chair steady for a mother collapsing in tears, and I held a trash bin for a father vomiting in grief. I prayed for children who had cancer, held hands of children who had burns, sang songs to children who had been abused.

As a pediatric trauma chaplain, I come face-to-face with enormous suffering and explicit injustice almost daily. It becomes easy to grow jaded, withdrawn, disconnected. The questions that are flung at me from those who are dying, who are surviving, who are mourning—the questions about God, sickness, and death—are too grand and too unanswerable.

I’ve been searching for something that keeps me connected and compassionate. Something that holds together through resilience andfragility, courage and vulnerability. Something that helps me go to sleep at night after sitting with sick babies and dead children, with grieving parents and broken families. Something that helps me find God.

Lately, that something is poetry.

Taking the example of my pastor/mentor/friend at College Park Church, Michael Usey, I decided to read a poem a day. I started reading poems by Oliver, Rumi, Hafiz, Angelou, and I learned that poetry has a language for my questions and emotions. As Rilke writes,

“Ah, the knowledge of impermanence
that haunts our days
is their very fragrance.”

There was room in poetry for the ambiguity and paradox I saw in human suffering, for both life and death, for both beauty and loss. So I also started writing poems about the children I work with who die. Almost counter-intuitively—composing poetry helped me fully express painful emotions, which loosened their hold on me. Poetry helped me lean into the questions, which brought peace enough to sleep at night. Poetry helped me name human mortality and fragility, which revealed moments of connection and courage.

I wrote this poem last week after a four-hour call in the Pediatric Emergency Department:

Papi20160211_084834

Hey, hey, heyyy…it’s Papi…
he calls,
shaking to wake his son,
whose heart has not pulsed for an hour—

Hey, hey, heyyy…
he calls,
cupping his son’s face,
which yellows and stiffens each minute—

Hey, hey, heyyy…
he calls,
trying not to throw up, but he does,
throws up phlegm, bile, despair—

Hey, hey, heyyy…
he calls,
wiping his mouth, looking at me—
“Hey, you’re the minister?

What can you do?”
I don’t know… Pray.
“Will it help?”

I don’t know…

We pray still.
We pray to you:
God…Abba…
Father…Papi…

Hey, hey, heyyy…
tell me:
Do you call for
us like that?

 

Writing that poem helped me engage my own honest emotions and ask the tough question about where God is in suffering. What I’m learning through this spiritual practice of poetry is that maybe God is in the longing. I don’t always feel God’s presence—I feel an intense longing for it. But the longing is real and points to a God on the other side of it, and maybe a God within it.

Wendell Berry writes,

“To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings.”

Poetry helps me lean into the longing, the darkness, and realize that there is a hint of God’s presence lingering there. It helps me connect with God as Mystery and find God in the possibility for redemption and not the certainty of it. Simply put, poetry is giving me hope. Maybe hope is what we need to lean into emotions we’d rather avoid, ask questions that have no answers on this side of life, and find God in the mystery and in the longing. May we all find the hope we need, whether through poetry or something else.

Keith A. Menhinick Keith
Alumni, MDiv ’15

Keith works as a Hospital Chaplain at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, N.C. He also serves as a Minister for Young Adults at College Park Baptist in Greensboro, N.C. He is a graduate of Gardner-Webb University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Keith uses the pen to question the intersections of faith and identity, and he is currently reading and he is currently reading Love Poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky and Poetic Medicine by John Fox.

This post was originally published by the Alliance of Baptists here: http://goo.gl/BTvqz9.